WILLMAR — Since a 6-2 loss at Brainerd/Little Falls in its regular-season finale on Jan. 30, the Willmar girls hockey team has not played a game in 11 days.
The next time the team hits the ice, it will do so as a favorite to qualify for the state tournament.
In search of their first state birth in 17 years, the top-seeded Cardinals open Section 6A play at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Willmar received a first-round bye. It faces No. 4 seed Northern Lakes in the section semifinals from the Willmar Civic Center.
Willmar took care of business in the regular season against Northern Lakes. First, the Cards opened the 2019-20 campaign with a 7-3 triumph over the Lightning on Nov. 12. Then, they captured another 7-3 victory in the rematch on Jan. 7 in Pequot Lakes.
“Playoff time every year, it’s a new season,” Willmar head coach Eric Setrum said. “We’ve played Northern Lakes twice and beat them both times by a few goals. But, if you look back at those games, they did outshoot us in both games.”
Setrum noted that his team has to match the visitors’ speed and intensity in the early going following the long layoff. Willmar has the deeper team, Setrum said, so it will aim to wear down the Lightning as the game progresses.
Senior forward Caitlyn Gutzman leads the Lightning with 27 goals and 44 points. Senior center Hayden Boelter has a team-high 20 assists and to go with 16 goals and 36 points. Each scored against the Cardinals earlier this season.
Freshman goaltender Kate Stephens was in net during Northern Lakes’ 4-1 section-quarterfinal win over Prairie Centre on Thursday.
“They have some girls (who) can play,” Setrum remarked.
Finishing the regular season with a 16-8-1 record, Willmar collected its most wins since the 2002-03 state-qualifying squad set the program standard at 21-6-2.
In the time in between, the Cardinals have had four winning seasons and six years with a positive goal differential. This season, the team was plus-36 in that department; its best showing since a plus-45 mark in 2011-12.
Willmar is carried by its offense. The team is sixth in Class A with 4.8 goals per game. With 120 goals, the Cards scored more than any Willmar team in more than 20 years.
Exactly three-quarters of Willmar’s goal-scoring comes from three people: Bailey Olson, Mya Monson and Madison Garberding.
With three shorthanded goals to her credit, Olson paces the squad in nearly offensive category (36 goals, 28 assists, 64 points). The junior forward is ninth in the state in goals and points.
“It’s been super fun. We’ve all gotten a lot of points this season,” Olson said. “I know I couldn’t have gotten as (many) points without my teammates. It’s a team sport and they’ve worked hard to help me get there, too.”
Monson, a forward and one of three seniors on the roster, has 49 points (23 g, 26 a). Garberding, a junior forward, is third with 47 points (31 g, 16 a).
Elsewhere, in her first season in between the pipes, senior Bryton Carlson was 11-7 with a 3.72 goals against average and an .884 save percentage. Among others, Setrum has lauded the play of sophomore forward Nina Dawson (7 g, 18 a), junior center Ashley Larson (8 g, 7 a) and junior defender Tanna Christensen (5 g, 5 a).
“I think we really met the expectations we had for each other and our coaches had for ourselves.” Garberding said.
She added: “I think everyone has done their part. That’s what’s made us so good.”
Holiday turning point
Opening with six home contests in their first seven games, the Cardinals started 6-0-1. Of the teams they played in that stretch, only River Lakes and Hutchinson have a winning record.
Willmar’s play dipped as the competition got tougher. The Cards dropped four of their next six before heading into the Armstrong/Cooper Holiday Classic.
The team swept through the post-Christmas tournament last season. But, as defending champion, Willmar lost 4-3 to Osseo/Park Center on Dec. 26.
Serving as the turning point of the season, the Cardinals rebounded the next two days with an 8-4 bashing of Holy Angels and a 5-2 triumph over Princeton.
“It’s always a fun time; it’s right after Christmas,” Garberding said. “We were the reigning champs and I thought the first game wasn’t our best. I think that’s what brought us together and made us realize that we can go this. We stuck with some Cities teams. We blew out a couple Cities teams. I think that’s what really opened our eyes and it's like we flipped a switch.”
Setrum added, “That’s a big deal for us. We take the team down and stay together as a team, there’s no parents or anybody coming or going anywhere. They are all in the same place. We do some team activities while we are there and it really builds that team bond and camaraderie. ... I think the team was close before that, but I think it really brought that all on the same page.”
Willmar closed out the regular season with wins in six of its final nine games, posting nine goals in a contest on two occasions.
If there is one area where Willmar struggled, it is against Central Lakes Conference opponents. The team was fifth in the CLC with a 4-7 mark. Brainerd/Little Falls, Sartell/Sauk Rapids and St. Cloud all finished above the Cardinals in the standings. All are Class AA teams. Alexandria, which took third in the conference, is the only Class A team to finish ahead of Willmar in the CLC.
Otherwise, it has been a dream season with more heights potentially to be reached.
If the Cards can sail past Northern Lakes, they'll play the winner of No. 2 Fergus Falls and No. 3 River Lakes in the section final at 7 p.m. Thursday at Fergus Falls.
The Otters are defending section champions.
Yet, all of the team’s success comes with a load of pressure. Given that it's the first time these players have had a top seed, some admit to feeling nervous heading into the semifinal.
Last week, Setrum and the coaches called a team meeting to address the elephant in the room.
“Honestly, there’s a fair amount of outside pressure. There’s a lot of people that thought we were going to have this seed,” Setrum said. “We wanted to make sure the girls understood that. It was a good meeting, a good discussion. ... There are some nerves, but I think they will be ready to play.”
The players all know that it’s been 17 years since the team has made it to state. Most weren’t born when it happened. To their credit, the Cardinals are facing the challenge head on.
“I think having the No. 1 seed adds a lot of pressure because we don’t want to get the No. 1 seed and lose in the first round,” Olson said. “Some of us are nervous that we aren’t going to go in there and perform. But nerves are good for us because it means that we actually care. We all know that we are putting in the work to try and make it to state.”